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Introduction Ira F. Stone The Kaplan Translation: Appreciation and Critique In 1915, Solomon Schechter, then president of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, urged his young protégé Mordecai Kaplan to translate the classic Jewish ethical treatise Mesillat Yesharim into English. It was to be the first English translation of one of the central texts in the Mussar tradition, the tradition of ethical writing and practice within Judaism. As far as can be determined, Schechter saw the project as contributing to Kaplan’s scholarly vitae in preparation for his succeeding Schechter as head of the seminary. At least that seems to be how Kaplan understood the request.1 Although the task did not please Kaplan, he undertook it, and the translation was eventually published in 1936 by The Jewish Publication Society in its Classics of Jewish Literature series. While we cannot know what was in Schechter’s mind, his choice of this text for Kaplan is fascinating. In the first place, Mussar literature and its importance to Jewish thought and practice was a common theme throughout Schechter’s writings and talks.2 The themes of piety and ethics and their connection were favorites of his. Though the Mussar movement of 19th -century Lithuania was associated with the mitnagdim, the opponents of the Hasidic tradition from which Schechter descended, Mussar literature was as prevalent among Hasidic Jews as mitnagdic Jews.3 For example, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky of Slonim, from one of the preeminent Hasidic communities in Lithuania, began a tradition of Mussar literature that is still of great importance within the larger Mussar literary canon. Perhaps of greater significance in this regard are the Mussar works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine and a major figure in modern Jewish mysticism. The centrality of perfecting one’s character traits for spiritual development, which was the chief pillar of Mussar literature, was equally accepted within Hasidic and mitnagdic communities. Moreover, as Eugene Borowitz4 has argued, all of the liberal movements in Jewish life from the 19th century onward, both secular h xiii and religious, fastened upon ethics as the chief instrument of their critique of traditional (Orthodox) Jewry. Movements as diverse as Reform Judaism and the Jewish Socialist Bund claimed that Orthodoxy had degenerated into rote practice divorced from the inner life that was critical to Jewish faith and values. These new liberal movements argued that one’s inner life could only be nourished by assuming an ethical stance in an otherwise materialistic world. As one of the architects of Conservative Judaism, another new liberal movement whose motto was “tradition and change,” Schechter would naturally have sought criteria by which tradition could be adapted to permit change. An ethical critique, incorporating the teachings of a respected sage like Luzzatto, would serve him well. YetmoremayhavebeeninSchechter’smindthanservinganideologicalagenda. Mordecai Kaplan was as much a scion of the Mussar movement as Schechter was of Hasidism. Kaplan’s father had been a student at central institutions of Mussar learning in Lithuania, studying at the eminent yeshivot of Volozhin and Kovno, the latter being home of the Mussar movement. Kaplan himself referred to his father as a Mussarnik.5 The senior Kaplan had come to the United States to serve as an assistant to Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, chief rabbi of New York, whose appointment was an attempt to replicate in the New World the structures of Jewish communal life still existing in Europe. Though the office of chief rabbi failed to take root, the Kaplan family nonetheless remained in New York, and Mordecai’s father oversaw his education, no doubt steeped in the Mussar tradition. Though Kaplan himself would eventually break from his father’s traditional religious perspective (although he did not espouse his radical ideas publicly until after his father’s death), his own approach to Judaism was nonetheless consistent with his father’s abiding devotion to the principles of Mussar. Kaplan’s mature theology replaced the supernaturalism of traditional Judaism with a naturalism that defined God as “the power that makes for salvation in the world,” and he characterized that salvation as human society governed by ethics. PerhapsSchechterrecognizedthatKaplan’sinnovativeideaswouldbestrengthened if they were grounded in a classic Jewish text, especially if that text had served a similar function for its original author, who, like Kaplan, was critiquing the rote Jewish practice in his own time. Did Schechter believe that Mesillat Yesharim, one of the central texts of the Mussar movement, arguably the first indigenous Jewish response to modernity, might also serve as...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780827611221
Related ISBN
9780827608566
MARC Record
OCLC
794925430
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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